Wigan Mosque is the heart of its community
The place of worship also has its doors open to the borough's residents.
For three and a half decades Wigan Mosque has provided a place of prayer and spiritual refuge for the borough’s Muslim community.
Established in a former primary school in Worsley Mesnes in 1986, Masjid Tooba has provided an important central point for people practising their Islamic faith in an area which is not especially diverse.
Muslims from Wigan have also felt confident about taking more prominent roles in public life, but sadly the mosque has also had to deal with a number of incidents of racial hate.
Despite that, though, it says its doors are open and it is keen to welcome people in to learn more about its work and to build bridges with the wider Wigan community.
Inside the Masjid Tooba (mosque is a European word for an Islamic place of worship, with the Arabic term being masjid or “place of prostration”, while Tooba means “glad tidings”) is a wash room for performing pre-prayer ablutions and then the main prayer hall.
Carpets are lined up so the faithful pray towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia while at one end stands the minbar where Imam Umar Ali preaches his Friday sermons and a digital board lists the prayer times.
There is a women’s prayer hall (which doubles up as a children’s classroom) and a separate washroom just off the main hall while a number of alterations have been made to the building, including creating further spaces for praying being installed on a mezzanine.
That is because the congregation has notably swelled its ranks over the years, with as many as 250 people going to the main Friday afternoon service pre-Covid.
Imam Ali, who is in his 18th year leading the mosque, said: “When I started I had six rows of people here on Fridays. Now we have to somehow fit them all in.
“It has been a considerable growth. Islam is now the second-biggest religion in Wigan.
“The mosque was built privately by members in Wigan. There was a lot of interest at the time from overseas students because there was no mosque in Wigan. They thought they should provide a service for Muslims to come and pray.”
One reason for the expanding numbers at prayers is that a number of asylum seekers and refugees have been placed in Wigan over the years and many of them have decided to stay on and build their lives here once they have been given leave to remain.
Muslims working in Wigan can also go along on Fridays when their job hours allow to pray and listen to Imam Ali’s sermons alongside borough residents.
It also makes Wigan Mosque a diverse place, with worshippers from backgrounds ranging from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to the whole of the African continent and the Indian subcontinent.
This is somewhat unusual as in places with bigger communities people of similar heritages tend to go to the mosque together, Imam Ali says.
The linguistic diversity also means English is the masjid’s common language, with Imam Ali giving a version of his sermon in English on Fridays before leading the prayers and giving his message in Arabic.
Its sense of community is something the mosque sees as one of its strong points, with Imam Ali describing it as “one of a kind”.
Esmail Lakdawala, who has been attending since 2007, said: “It works for us. We’re not a very sizeable population and the mosque has quite a central role in our lives.
“There’s only one mosque in Wigan so everyone regardless of their country of origin comes here.
“People discuss their issues and it’s quite family-oriented. In places with bigger Muslim populations there might be thousands of people praying and you wouldn’t know each one by name, but here the imam recognises people. Here we interact and help each other with problems and solutions.”
Those problems include the kind of aggravating instances which are part of running any public building, such as lead and copper theft and break-ins.
However, sadly, the mosque has also had to deal with incidents which were clearly racist or anti-Islamic in nature.
Esmail said: “Running a mosque in a predominantly white area is not always an easy task. Some are the misdemeanours you associate with a public building but some are targeted.
“We had a pig’s head left at the door in 2017 and when events take place globally or nationally you get the odd person taking issue and leaving hate messages on the landline or email.”
Thankfully there has not been a serious incident since 2017 while the imam says the mosque received messages of support after the Manchester Arena terrorist bombing and got flowers and cards after a far-right terrorist attacked a mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand.
The mosque says it has also had excellent support from the local police.
Asked what he would say to the perpetrators of hate incidents, Imam Ali said: “We have always said please come and visit us. Come and have a chat with us and a cup of tea and hopefully we will be able to understand each other.
“It stems all the way from children in primary school visiting us right through to people off the street. It has always worked well for us and we hopefully aim to carry that on.”
As well as worship the masjid runs classes for young people, Islamic marriage ceremonies, counselling and bereavement and funeral services.
It also provides a focal point for the community to come together to celebrate major events in the Islamic calendar, such as Eid-al-Adha or the Festival of the Sacrifice which fell last week.
A steady stream of visitors have also come through the doors of Masjid Tooba over the years as the mosque has welcomed people from the community in and created connections.
The mosque has built strong relationships with Wigan Council, health organisations such as NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
Young officers training with GMP have visited to learn about policing diverse communities, while health bosses organised an event to encourage people to have a Covid-19 vaccine and answer their questions.
The mosque has also held three open days as part of the council’s Deal 2030, with around 75 people coming in for a community cohesion visit to see the building and ask any questions about Islam as well as being given the chance to take an English version of the Koran home if they wished.
In addition the masjid has also begun to assume a more prominent role in the borough’s public life, with the group of women behind the recently-established Wigan branch of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign meeting at the mosque and then developing their idea in a WhatsApp group and teenager Layan Hassan being a member of Wigan Youth Cabinet.
The mosque also works in the community, holding fund-raisers in the last couple of years for Wigan and Leigh Hospice (WLH) after the link was made by one of its trustees who is a GP.
It has also previously raised cash for Swap, which helps asylum seekers and refugees in Wigan, and on a day-to-day basis allows the nearby primary school to use its car park as a picking up and dropping off point.
Imam Ali said: “Having people visit the mosque helps to break down those mental barriers and perceptions they might have of who we are and what we do. We just carry on and hopefully see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Esmail said: “The main message is that we are here, we are part of the community of Wigan and we are quite open.”
For more information visit http://masjidtooba.co.uk/
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